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Istanbul: City of Endless Motion and Energy

How does Istanbul embody both the East and West, as well as the North and South?

December 16, 2005

How does Istanbul embody both the East and West, as well as the North and South?

Though I am not a native of Istanbul, I have spent a great deal of my time there. Perhaps natives, unless they have lived elsewhere for a while, are not aware of the power generated and transmitted by the city.

I felt this for the first time when I moved at the age of six from my native town of Kayseri to Istanbul. As the son of an Anatolian artisan trying to make a living in Istanbul, the energy of the city initially frightened me.

Now that I live in the slower-paced Western metropolis of Washington, D.C., I feel again the same vibrant energy every time I visit Istanbul. What's different now is that I don't fear the city, but enjoy it immensely — and I try to absorb it to the fullest extent possible.

After living in Istanbul for several years, the relative quietness of Washington seemed at first like heaven. In comparison to Istanbul, there was less honking, fewer crowded streets and no inescapable pollution. Being a Washington resident, I feel more like I am living in a city of serenity.

Istanbul, in contrast, fills me with energy during my three or four visits each year. Where is this dynamism coming from?

Perhaps, it is from the heavy migration from rural Turkey to highly urbanized Istanbul — a relentlessly growing city where quantity still matters more than quality. New houses, roads, office buildings and schools are being built constantly.

On the other hand, the people are continuously moving from one place to another and its initiatives are further consolidating its cultural, economic and social lead not only for Turkey — but also for the larger Eurasia region.

Whenever I can retreat from the daily crowdedness of the city and observe it from the outside, I feel like I am watching millions of beings scurrying around in an endless motion.

The transformation that has been taking place in its economy is another major source of this dynamism. As the state's role in the economic sphere continues to diminish, there is an increasing dominance of private entrepreneurs that is the key element in this change.

Historically, Istanbul has always been a city of opportunity for Turks, attracting people from all over the nation. Today, Istanbul is the nucleus of the Turkish private sector, representing half of the economy.

It is also a metropolis that can be seen as a regional headquarters for hundreds of multinationals that do sizeable business with Russia, the Caucasus, Central Asia and the Middle East. Istanbul is a city where foreigners can easily find jobs, do business and entertain themselves.

A U.S. diplomat who had served in the Middle East once told me that Turkey is the frontier of the West if you go there from the East — and that of the East if you land in it from the West. I have personally noticed this phenomenon on many occasions when I have flown in to Turkey from eastern countries and also from numerous western cities.

Istanbul fits this description better than Turkey itself. The city is a highly concentrated version of Turkey, where one doesn't need to travel hundreds of miles to sense the meeting points of East and West, as well as North and South.

It is a city of contradictions — one where opposites meet in their truest sense. Topkapi's Harem meets Istanbul Modern, a fascinating museum of modern arts. A place where headscarves meet low-rise blue jeans, street vendors meet Fortune 500 corporate giants, Saint Sophie meets the Blue Mosque — and Russian tourists meet Tunisian businessmen.

But for those who view Istanbul as their home, it is often one of the biggest sources of their frustration. The noise, pollution and the ongoing struggle is an inherent part of the city.

However, the beauty of Istanbul is that it is home to a variety of lifestyles that coexist side by side. In addition, its layers of history and natural beauty embrace its people and visitors.

Nevertheless, there are downsides of Istanbul's energy. The overwhelming and chaotic atmosphere takes away some of the courtesy every urban center should minimally possess and often leads people to forget the joy of slowness.

To many, Istanbul is a city that exudes a melancholy atmosphere. It can be seen in the form of fatigued looks, arabesque music, heavy smoking and bottles of raki, a strong anise flavored alcoholic drink.

Is this melancholy consistent with the level of energy generated in this town? Absolutely. This tangible emotion is the residue of a rich past, of unresolved conflicts and of an unsettled identity. Turks enjoy their sadness. It's not a depression one would want to get rid of. Instead, it is a kind of pleasure that is sought after persistently.

This melancholy — or huzun, as we say in Turkish — has been the main theme of Orhan Pamuk's most recent book titled "Istanbul." As a native and resident of Istanbul, Mr. Pamuk offers an insightful yet different observation about this city-wide melancholy.

A French writer once wrote about a French city that one should let himself be guided by the streets. Probably, he meant Paris, but Istanbul, in my view, would be a better place to be guided by the streets than the carefully planned and reconstructed Paris.

Most of the time, even if you do not intend to get lost, you will be lost in the narrow, meandering streets of old Istanbul. How else one can enjoy such neighborhoods as Balat, Galata, Fatih, Besiktas or Eyup? An American friend of a friend recently visited Istanbul. I asked him what his friend thought of Istanbul: "The West and Third World side by side", he replied.

Is this an exaggerated viewpoint of an unsophisticated American? No. Beyond the interior of the oldest sector of the city and some of its modern neighborhoods, there are definite "Third World" aspects of the city.

Does this make Istanbul less interesting or beautiful? In my opinion, the vibrant energy of this city is directly related to this "Third World" crowd who are continuously trying to make inroads into the heart of the city.

Istanbul can be exhausting — if you insist on owning it. Ownership is always dangerous and sticky. Once you own Istanbul, you have to try to understand it, explain it, maintain and improve it — these tasks would eventually prevent you from appreciating it. Rather, one should relax and enjoy it.

Foreigners living in Istanbul or those visiting Istanbul appear to enjoy it more than the locals. If my observation is correct, the difference ought to be attributed to the ownership status.

What does Istanbul mean vis-à-vis the EU process Turkey is undergoing? Istanbul is the pride of Turks. It's not only the most European city but also the bridge connecting them to Europe. For Europeans, it's Byzantium, Constantinople, the frontier of Europe — and the city they lost to the Turks.

They would gladly take Istanbul in had they been allowed to cherry-pick the districts of Turkey for EU membership. Yet, they tend to ignore that Istanbul does not signify much without the rest of Turkey.

Without the constant influx of migrants, would Istanbul be able to scatter power and light? These people aspire to improve their lives and contribute to the city's tangible energy. In this sense, Istanbul is not only Istanbul, but also Turkey. Will Europe be able to benefit from this power? I hope so.

Istanbul is on the rise again as the balance of power is shifting from Ankara to Istanbul. This doesn't mean that the Ataturk revolutions failed. Instead, it shows that the heavy centralization and bureaucracy that was needed to secure the revolutions and the city are no longer relevant.

Ankara, today, is increasingly considered as an obstacle to improving the country's democracy and economy. The power Ankara has enjoyed for nearly 80 years is eroding because Istanbul is more qualified to symbolize the dynamism of this global era — and is now taking over.

However, no longer as the capital of a multi-ethnic and multi-religious empire, but as the de facto economic, cultural and strategic center of gravity in its region.

Finally, I honestly asked myself, whether I would have written this essay as a resident of Istanbul ten years ago? Remembering my time in Istanbul, up to seven years ago, my response was clear-cut: No! Yet, I am now aware that this stems entirely from my problem with the ownership issue. Next time I settle there, I am determined to overcome it.